Despite disagreements on how to make it happen, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and all members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed on Tuesday that strong action needs to be taken to combat sexual assault in the military.
Today’s hearing is the first in the Armed Services Committee in over a decade on the issue of sexual assault, held in the aftermath of several damning reports and scandals involving an epidemic of assault in the armed forces. Summing up the feelings of many speakers, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) related a story to the committee of a woman who asked if he could give her daughter his unqualified support in joining the military. “I could not,” McCain said, adding, “I cannot overstate my disgust and disappointment over the continued reports of sexual misconduct in our military.”
Several pieces of legislation have already been introduced in both the House and Senate to change the status quo, many including provisions that would do away with the commander’s ability as the convening authority to overturn sexual assault convictions as was seen in February. That incident sparked the explosion in discussion surrounding the issue, bringing it to the forefront of the country’s attention.
Some proposed legislation, however, would go further, completely removing sexual crimes from the military chain of command. The latter proposal was met with strong pushback from the Joint Chiefs, citing the difficulty in singling out rape and other sexual assault from the chain of command. “If I honestly believed that pulling the commanding officer, the convening authority, the disposition authority out of the chain command would fix it, then, sir, I would raise my hand and vote for it today,” Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos told the panel.
The other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed with Amos when questioned. “I don’t know how to take it out of the chain of command and then…put the victim back in if they come back or the report is reviewed, the investigation is reviewed and it’s returned and they say here you go, it’s back again,” Commander of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said. “I just don’t understand how to do that yet.”
Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY), Chair of the Subcommittee on Personnel and one of the primary leaders on the issue of military sexual trauma, challenged the top brass, citing several American allies — including Israel, the United Kingdom, and Canada — as evidence that rape can be taken out from the chain of command. “Israel in the last five years, because they have prosecuted high level cases, you know what has increased by 80 percent?” she asked. “Reporting.”
Despite several contentious moments on how to proceed, and some less than helpful statements from Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), all of the Chiefs strongly backed tackling the crisis head-on and eagerly sought to portray their branches as being allies in the fight against sexual assault. Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh, whose branch has been among the most scandal-ridden in recent months, cited his family as a reason for wanting to strengthen the military’s response to such crimes. “I have five sisters,” Welsh said. “I have a mother. They set my moral compass. I have a daughter who is looking into coming into the U.S. Air Force. I will not be tolerant of this crime.”
In its latest report, the Pentagon revealed that there were an estimated 26,000 incidences of sexual assault in the military. Several senators, however, took umbrage with the way that number is calculated, as the reporting does not distinguish between aggravated cases of assault and rape from lesser offenses like verbal sexual harassment. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey noted that the formulation was intended to reflect that these incidents happen on a spectrum, but admitted that it was likely due for an update.